Music as a Narrative Device

By September 30, 2015 Blog
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Guest Blog from our partners Audio Network Director Brandon Faris knows the powerful effect music has on any production. Below he explains how he uses music to amplify the tone and emotion of a story.

One Sunday morning, Pastor Coots reached into a box and pulled out a rattlesnake. I was so transfixed by the rockabilly gospel playing that instead of being terrified, I was mesmerized. I was filming my short documentary Venom & Fire and at that moment I realized the power of music as a narrative device.

As a filmmaker, I have devoted much of my time to commercial and documentary work. Sometimes I feel confined by the script or testimony. Music, however, gives me the ability to transform content, allowing me to tell the story that’s in my mind’s eye.

After selecting the right music, I look for space in my edit where it will naturally push the story along. Constant music throughout an edit can make a video feel pre-fabricated. Think of music as a breath, knowing when to inhale and exhale. I use silence as a mechanism to contrast with my tracks – it helps build an emotion or transition to a new idea. When you mute the dialogue tracks, you should be able to hear the story arc in the music. This is how you know you have selected music that is working hard to support your story. When done right, the viewer should barely notice the music because they are consumed by the story.

I have developed a few exercises that help me select music with a purpose and not out of a necessity that I’d like to share.

Lose yourself in the music

I’m not talking about getting high on recreational narcotics and staring at the cosmos, I’m proposing that you let go of your personal music bias and open yourself to the story. Dive deep into the culture of your subject, even if it goes against anything you would publicly admit you have listened to.

While making Hoofer, a short documentary about a tap dancer, I selected cheesy teen pop music for a dance montage. I don’t usually listen to teen pop house, but it brought the scene to life and our film was awarded Best Music at the International Documentary Challenge.

Listen to your surroundings

When you are on set, it’s easy to be consumed by the visuals. In an industry obsessed with the next big thing in video resolution, filmmakers often omit the importance of sound. As a documentary filmmaker, I’m always listening to the room. Something playing in the background could be an indicator of the general tone of your subject: consider it a gift.

While filming Venom & Fire, I asked the daughter to sing her favorite hymn for me. I recorded her and captured what would become the theme for the film. By setting it against simple Dobro slide chording, it came to life.

Trust your emotions

Music has the power to shape your mood. The human experience has a broad range of emotions that you have been experiencing your whole life. Fear, joy, depression, and angst come naturally – so will the music. When you are selecting tracks to support or drive a story, allow yourself the space to feel the music. When you share a rough cut with people, ask them how it made them feel.

In an attempt to inspire my native Cincinnati, I carefully selected tracks for my short film Art & Craft: A Tale of Beer and Brushes. At the premiere, over 500 hometown supporters erupted into applause and you could feel the sense of pride in the room. With the wrong music, it would have just been some pretty pictures and an interesting interview.

As I think about my experience that day in the hills of Appalachia, I recall the charismatic sights and sounds. Although the people and stories were intriguing, it’s the music that haunts me. I witnessed something mystical, beautiful, and I will never forget what that sound looks like.

Brandon is the director of LEAPframe, a Cincinnati-based video production company.

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